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GMOs: Why can’t we get along?

Xiaoyu Zhang

posted February 13, 2017

Until recently, I had never really paid attention to the constant news and social media frenzy surrounding the ‘controversial’ use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), comfortable in my knowledge that a protein-coding gene from one species can be introduced into another for beneficial purposes. But last week, as I was contently chewing on some snacks, some writing on the packaging caught my eye. “Non-GMO peas,” the package declared, in font obnoxiously larger than the adjacent ingredient list, as if it was some ethical victory the manufacturer had won in procuring these unadulterated peas. A quick internet search and another bag of snacks later, I realized that public opposition to GMOs is a far more complicated issue than no-brainer anti-science fads like “vaccine causes autism” and “global warming is a conspiracy” – arguments that can simply be attributed to a lack of adequate scientific knowledge and closed-mindedness. So why don’t pro- and anti-GMOs get along? Do we really understand each other?

 

A European study published in 2001 revealed typical misconceptions that the pro-GMO campaigns held as to the beliefs of the general public (Marris, 2001). Through sessions of group discussion, the study surveyed a total of 432 participants from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK, representing different ages, education levels, social statuses, and eating habits. Interestingly, the study showed that the public did not simply accept or reject GMOs altogether; people understood that the products should be viewed on a case-to-case basis. Rather than distrusting technology itself, the public’s faith towards government agencies and food companies had been spoiled by the way that scandals such as BSE (prion diseases) and Coca-Cola contamination were handled in the past. In addition, the participants felt that the institutions responsible have failed to provide a realistic risk assessment of GMOs by claiming “zero risks.” The study also found that the public was concerned by the large quantities of US GMO imports to Europe, where excessive food production is a problem. On another note, the “unnaturalness” that people obsess over was not solely directed toward GMOs but also toward things like pesticides and artificial animal feeds, which are detrimental to the environment, ecosystem, and food taste. It just so happens that GMOs are viewed as the ultimate opposition to an organic agricultural trend.

 

Meanwhile, a 2013 collaborative study between University of Pennsylvania and University of Toronto sampled 859 participants representative of the US population in age, gender, and income (Scott, Inbar, & Rozin, 2016). Unexpectedly, the study showed that 64% of the participants opposed the usage of GMOs. Of these opponents, a staggering 71% (45% of the total) were moral absolutists who were evidence-insensitive and would hold their opposition regardless of harm or benefit. For example, participants believed that “golden rice” should be banned even though it has prevented hundreds of thousands of cases of vitamin A deficiency-induced blindness in Africa and Asia. From a psychological point of view, these kinds of moral values come from “protected” or “sacred” intrinsic beliefs rather than consequence-based evaluations, and actions that violate such values trigger anger and disgust (Scholderer, 2003; Tetlock, 2003). This finding to some degree explains why the countless efforts to persuade certain groups to accept GMOs have been so ineffective. Nevertheless, the million-dollar question is why GMOs raise such high moral absolutism among the American public. The study reasoned that it could be partially due to corporatism, where a few biotechnology companies monopolize the industry and exacerbate inequality in social wealth. Another important reason was that GMOs were associated with “contamination” and violations of “naturalness” (which was also observed in the European study), and thus tampering either with nature itself or with the creations of God.

 

As difficult as it can be to convert those moral absolutists, many arguments are misunderstood and important concerns are never properly addressed, despite the frustration of the pro-GMO parties who feel like every effort has been made to educate the public. For example, pesticide- and herbicide-resistant crops pose a threat to non-pests, result in herbicide abuse, and select for resistance (Heap, 2010; Hsaio, 2015; "University Scientists Dispute Syngenta Study Conclusion that Pesticide is Low Risk to Bees," 2017). Furthermore, in contrast to the tight regulation of GMOs in the EU, the US FDA seems to leave the industry in the hands of very few agricultural biotechnology companies. As advocates in Washington State fight for the approval of GMO labeling legislation, food industry representatives and some government officials argue that labeling is unnecessarily costly and “would only confuse consumers.”  Rather than blaming the public for their uncooperativeness, perhaps a little more transparency in R&D, evaluation, and policy-making processes would help to bridge the discrepancy. There is no doubt that it will be a long and difficult journey before GMOs are widely accepted. At the end of the day, some groups may never be convinced, and who’s to say that’s not okay?

References

Heap, I. (2010). The International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds.   Retrieved from http://www.weedscience.org/ Hsaio, J. (2015). GMOs and Pesticides: Helpful or Harmful?  Retrieved from http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/gmos-and-pesticides/ Marris, C. (2001). Public views on GMOs: deconstructing the myths: Stakeholders in the GMO debate often describe public opinion as irrational. But do they really understand the public? EMBO Reports, 2(7), 545-548. doi:10.1093/embo-reports/kve142 Scholderer, J., & Frewer, L. J. . (2003). The biotechnology communication paradox: Experimental evidence and the need for a new strategy. Journal of Consumer Policy, 26, 125–157. Scott, S. E., Inbar, Y., & Rozin, P. (2016). Evidence for Absolute Moral Opposition to Genetically Modified Food in the United States. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(3), 315-324. doi:10.1177/1745691615621275 Tetlock, P. E. (2003). Thinking the unthinkable: sacred values and taboo cognitions. Trends Cogn Sci, 7(7), 320-324. University Scientists Dispute Syngenta Study Conclusion that Pesticide is Low Risk to Bees. (2017).  Retrieved from http://beyondpesticides.org/dailynewsblog/2017/01/university-scientists-dispute-syngenta-study-conclusion-pesticide-low-risk-bees/